The press release for Toronto area band Union Duke’s new album, Cash & Carry reads, “Five guys, 24 beers, and a half-ton truckload of foot-stomping folk rock!” This might be the first time that the words “foot-stomping” and “folk rock” have ever been combined in the same sentence or used as a description for a band that is primarily focused on country-bluegrass music, such as Union Duke. So while the review was likely written partly in jest in order to draw in the reader and listener, there actually is some truth to the words.
It wasn’t so long ago that acoustic-type bands would spend their time locked up in their country cabins, practicing their tunes for their own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of a small select fan base. But of course that was before groups like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers exploded on the scene and opened up new avenues. Now it seems that music that speaks from the heart and showcases musicianship is back in vogue.
Union Duke are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Matt Warry-Smith (percussion, ukulele and vocals), Ethan Smith (acoustic guitar and vocals) and Jim McDonald (banjo and vocals) all from the Toronto area, Will Staunton (bass, kick drum and vocals) from Port Hope, ON, and Rob McLaren (electric guitar, fiddle and vocals) from Red Deer, AB. The origins of the band go back to when Matt, Ethan and Jim began playing music around the Toronto circuit at the ripe age of thirteen. As the trio advanced, they later added Will and Rob to the lineup, and since then, have continued to thrive both on and off the stage. The collection of songs that they’ve been carrying around in their back pocket have come to fruit on Cash & Carry, now ready for public consumption.
The new album, which quite fittingly was recorded in a cabin in the Ontario woods, gets off to a nice jump start on the opener, “Rolling On the Blue.” Banjoes and acoustic guitars unite effectively with soaring vocals as the singer sings, “kick up dust to the wind, I’m westbound once again my friend.”
Union Duke – “Rolling On the Blue”
That confident tone is what you hear throughout the album. Union Duke sing and play with a conviction, and it is evident that they have spent time honing their sound and craft. Here and there you will even find musical shades of the Barenaked Ladies or Great Big Sea. On songs such as “That Old Feeling” and “Bike Song,” there is even a nod of the head and a tip of the hat to the Osborne (“Rocky Top”) Brothers.Cash & Carry will easily whet the appetites of those absorbed by the current nouveau folk rage, but at the same time it will also appeal to those who harken for the days of old-time bluegrass or the sounds of Allison Krauss and Union Station.
Union Duke – “Up To Me / That Old Feeling”
Union Duke – “Knew it All Along”
It may sound clichéd, but there is an earthy, down-home quality found on Cash & Carry. The songs play like stories you’d sing around a campfire, and you certainly get that cabin-esque feeling. Union Duke have created a sound that isn’t typically what you’d expect from a group of Ontario musicians, however, there exists a charm in what they are doing. The music comes off sounding free and easy, and thanks to their effortless tight-knit harmonies and the use of mostly acoustic instrumentation, they bridge the country-folk-bluegrass genres nicely. Are they breaking new ground? Not really. Still, the no frills approach works well for them while at the same time they manage to sound elaborate in setting and style. A rollicking ride is promised, “foot-stomping folk rock” indeed!
– Marvin Matthews